Enlighten Up! Another Yoga Sceptic’s Thoughts on the Film
By Estian Smit
Kate: “Despite its obvious contradictions I still believe there is a true yoga, a life-changing practice that can lead a person to happiness, maybe even enlightenment” (Enlighten Up!, 2:09).
Nick: “I don’t know whether to feel naïve believing in the possibilities of yoga or too cynical. Had I missed an opportunity to let yoga change my life, or fooled myself by ever thinking it was possible in the first place?” (Enlighten Up!, 1:15:35).
Enlighten Up! A Skeptic’s Journey into the World of Yoga is a documentary film on the contemporary yoga scene, produced and directed by Kate Churchill (USA, 2008, 82 minutes). It follows Nick Rosen, a 29-year-old journalist and yoga newbie, as he traverses the US and Indian yoga circuit for six months in search of a practice that can transform his life. Somewhat sceptical, but open to persuasion, Nick is pushed relentlessly by Kate, the filmmaker, who is herself a dedicated yoga student dearly wishing to prove yoga’s power to transform anyone. Nick does not prove pliable enough, though, and gradually tension builds up between the two. The film’s charting of the dynamics between Kate as yoga convert and Nick as yoga sceptic proves as interesting as their tour of yoga studios and teachers, but in the end enlightenment transpires for neither of them, nor do they find the perfect practice or guru. Their yoga journey does however leave them with new insights and alter their perspectives on yoga, if in different ways.
The idea of making a yoga documentary came to Kate by way of two fellow yoga students, Tom and Jeanne Hagerty (the film’s executive producers), who spent their honeymoon practicing yoga in Hawaii with yoga teacher Norman Allen, himself a student of Ashtanga Yoga guru, Pattabhi Jois. Allen “had a profound effect” on the Hagerty couple and the experience inspired them to approach Kate to make a movie about yoga (Espat, 2009). However, the chief rationale behind the conceptualisation of the film (which gradually surfaces in the interview exchanges between Kate and Nick, and which she eventually truthfully admits) seems to have been Kate’s desire to find inspiration for her own practice and make progress with her own spiritual quest:
“I wanted to capture an experience of finding an ‘enlightened yogi’, although I wasn’t certain what that meant. […] I really believed that with the right person, and enough time we could cut through the commercialism of the yoga industry and discover a practice or a teacher that could have a profound impact on Nick and subsequently me” (Enlighten Up! Digital Press Kit, p.4).
Although not mentioned as such by Kate, integrating one’s search for the perfect practice or guru with one’s profession as filmmaker is a practical way of dedicating more time to one’s spiritual quest. Not to mention the fact that making a film generally provides a way for getting access to (and a little special attention from) the Who’s Who of the global yoga market, who would otherwise be out of reach of the regular yoga practitioner.
So, over a period of six months, starting in June 2004, Kate took Nick on trips to a string of yoga studios in the US and India, acquainting him with a hotchpotch of trendy yoga styles and teachers. They captured “over 500 hours of footage, which included interviews with over 70 yogis” (Enlighten Up! Digital Press Kit, p.6). Although not all these yogis made it into the film, those who did include: Cyndi Lee of OM Yoga (Day 1, 5:59), Alan Finger, creator of ISHTA Yoga (Day 8, 6:47), Otto Cedeño of Bikram Yoga (8:13), Ravi Singh and Ana Brett of Kundalini Yoga (Day 18, 9:32), Dharma Mittra of the Dharma Yoga Center (Day 24, 11:28), Sharon Gannon and David Life, creators of Jivamukti Yoga (Day 35, 14:24), Shyamdas, bhakti practitioner and devotional musician (Day 36, 17:09), Diamond Dallas Page, world champion wrestler, with his “Yoga for Regular Guys” (Day 73, 22:13), Norman Allen of Big Island, Hawaii (Day 90, 26:10), his teacher, Pattabhi Jois, creator of Ashtanga Yoga (Day 114, 35:32), Madan Kataria, or the Guru of Giggling, the creator of Hasya Yoga/laughter yoga (41:43) and B.K.S. Iyengar, creator of Iyengar Yoga (46:18).
Also featuring briefly are Natasha Rizopoulos (YogaWorks), Rodney Yee (Yee Yoga), Baron Baptiste (Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga), Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa (Golden Bridge Yoga), Beryl Bender Birch (The Hard & the Soft Yoga Institute), Judith Lasater (Restorative Yoga & Therapeutics), David Swenson (Ashtanga Yoga) and Ana Forrest.
Continuing their exploration of yoga’s diverse manifestations, Nick and Kate also investigated the non-asana, devotional ‘yoga’ favoured by Vaisnava and other bhakti disciples, saints and swamis in North India, with Shyamdas functioning as eager spiritual tour guide and tireless proselytiser (Day 161, 57:12). Among others, they visited Chotta Maharaja, Mukhiyani, Deva Das, Guru Datt and Swami Gurusharanananda of the Karshni Ashram, Raman Reti (1:03:42).
Additionally, to gain a scholarly, historical perspective, Nick spoke to Joseph Alter at the University of Pittsburgh (Day 58, 19:55) and David Gordon White at the University of California, Santa Barbara (20:17).
As they proceed from one teacher or guru to another, physical and mental strain increases and conflict mounts between Kate as director and Nick as her ‘yoga subject’ – it gradually becoming clear that the anticipated yoga transformation is not transpiring for either of them, at least not anything near as dramatic as they had hoped, at one point leading Kate to declare despondently:
Kate: “[I’m pretty?] sick of yoga. I’m sick and tired of trying to get Nick to be meaningful. The bottom line is that it’s more about practice and discipline and commitment. And like I just wanna change, so I thought maybe I can make somebody else do it and then maybe I would too” (53:03).
In what follows I take a brief look at a number of issues highlighted by the film. I do not intend an in-depth analysis of the various aspects of contemporary yoga, but rather using the film to enumerate a range of issues that may be of interest to current and former yoga practitioners. The article starts with a broad distinction between the asana-based yoga styles and exclusively bhakti (devotional) approaches featuring in the film, noting how despite tensions there are points of convergence and mutual influence. In the next section we continue the exploration of different notions of yoga and asana at play in the film, before considering the widely divergent views held by popular yoga teachers and scholars on yoga’s age, origins and nature – here I digress a little into historical detail not generally known to yoga practitioners. Next, we briefly look at how Nick and Kate compared their experience of practicing yoga in the US versus practicing in India, yoga’s supposed birthplace.
The article then touches on the branding, marketing and selling of yoga, tying into a couple of ways in which yoga teachers and gurus legitimate their expertise and spiritual authority. This is followed by a critical look at how Nick as prospective yoga student is promised yoga could deliver him anything and everything – from health, wealth, strength, intelligence, love and great sex to self-sufficiency and liberation – and how pressure is brought to bear on him to make a spiritual commitment. I pose the question whether Nick’s teachers and gurus themselves appear transformed by yoga, before looking at the impact the yoga experiment had on Nick and Kate, particularly with regard to their worldviews and the issue of spiritual conversion. The article concludes with a look at Kate and Nick’s attitudes towards yoga after the completion of the yoga project, as well as a personal note on how I related to the film as former yoga enthusiast.
Although not a very sophisticated documentary, the juxtaposition of yoga styles, teachers and divergent interpretations of yoga makes Enlighten Up! an interesting illustration not only of the various flavours, contradictions and differences characterising the contemporary yoga scene, but also of some of the crosscutting features in what has become a multi-cultural, transnational phenomenon. While no one trait is shared by all the yoga approaches in precisely the same way, it is possible to observe a degree of overlap (or family resemblances) between the various groups.
In Nick’s case, his main conflict during visits to various yoga studios and gurus revolved around a choice between a physical, secular or fact-based approach to yoga and a more spiritual or faith-based approach. For the purpose of interpreting his experiences I roughly divide the yoga groups into asana-oriented yoga styles (e.g. B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois) vis-à-vis purely devotional or bhakti approaches (e.g. Shyamdas and some of the North Indian swamis and saints to whom he introduces Nick). The asana-oriented styles I further subdivide into those with a New Agey, devotional or religious-spiritual dimension – which may be more of less pronounced (e.g. Dharma Mittra; Sharon Gannon and David Life of Jivamukti Yoga), and those with a more exclusively physical and secular orientation (in the film represented chiefly by Diamond Dallas Page). The lines between these approaches do blur, however, and sometimes significantly so. It also needs to be noted that a stronger spiritual-religious (Hindu) dimension may be present when gurus like Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar teach at their home base in India, and generally less so in the case of yoga teachers teaching their styles (e.g. Ashtanga Yoga or Iyengar Yoga) elsewhere in the world.
Regardless of their respective spiritual or secular leanings, all the asana-based yogas are characterised by a preoccupation with health, strength, fitness and/or good looks. From Dharma Mittra with his singsong invocations of God’s omnipresence to the sort of unapologetically anti-spiritual, even porny, “Yoga for Regular Guys” brand of wrestler Diamond Dallas Page (DDP), all of them possess a health and fitness orientation. In this they share a common heritage that is far from ancient, but rather consists of a fairly recent legacy bestowed by the radical re-making of traditional yoga practices in the early to mid-twentieth century under the influence of Hindu nationalist ideals and the international physical culture movement. This latter development included the invention of a host of new yoga postures inspired by European gymnastics and other international exercise regimes. It also entailed deliberately sanitising and excising (or at least conveniently forgetting) many aspects of traditional yoga practice, in particular the unhygienic, mendicant, violent and religio-magical lifestyles with which hatha yoga had been inextricably linked (more about this later).
Where the New Agey asana-centred styles differ from DDP’s irreverent, this-worldly yoga, is in sharing a spiritual and/or devotional element (albeit to varying degrees and with some significant differences in religious goals and philosophies) with the bhakti approaches of Shyamdas and the devotional Hindu saints whom Nick visits with him in India. Although the details of their religious constructions differ, the spiritually inclined asana styles and the modern bhakti yoga traditions hold in common the belief in a supposedly ancient and illustrious Indian spiritual heritage of universal soteriological import, which is moreover assumed to include and supersede the findings of modern science. In these respects both approaches show themselves shaped by the desire to provide an answer to the challenge of modern science and its values, as well as by the wish to fulfil the dictates of modern (western) discourses on the required features of a true, universal religion or spirituality.
However, given that the exclusively bhakti approaches do not include asana practice, nor see much (if any) spiritual worth in it, they have been less subject to the influence of modern physical culture practices than the asana-centred styles. Even so, they have nevertheless assimilated modern assumptions regarding the health and fitness benefits of asana, as is evident from comments by some of the bhakti practitioners in Enlighten Up!
Deva Das: “Most of people misguided about yoga” (59:07). […] “You can’t get any energy of yoga from asanas. First step of yoga, that’s called postures. Only you can get health” (59:12).
Shyamdas (translating/interpreting another Indian bhakta): “Ah, so he [i.e. the Indian swami] says what? People are doing yoga maybe because they want a little better body, or healthy. He says and that more and more people will be practicing that in the West. But what is the true yoga, that is not the yoga. ’Cos the real yoga is the yoga of bhakti” (59:30).
But despite the confident assertions of the bhaktas, the existence of one “true yoga” – whether of bhakti or anything else – cannot be that easily proclaimed. Yoga has come to mean different things to different groups of practitioners, a state of affairs which may be deplored by some, but which cannot be obviated by religious caveat, especially not in the light of historical evidence (see section below on “Yoga – its age, origins and nature”). Moreover, mixing and matching of spiritual practices in a transnational world tends to blur the lines between the asana-centred and bhakti-centred approaches. For instance, Shyamdas’s own hardline devotionalism notwithstanding, he evidently enjoys associating with the asana crowd and they clearly relate to his devotional singing. Indeed, some bhakti groups, such as the Hare Krishnas, are realising the marketing potential offered by the modern asana craze. There now even exists an Atma Yoga brand (apparently created by a devotee in 2001) that integrates asana exercises and ISKCON beliefs and practices. I noticed a local instance of this trend when a few years ago the ISKCON branch in Cape Town started offering a Yoga Lounge, which included regular asana classes with dinner afterwards. The asana classes may have been largely intended as another proselytising opportunity, or “outreach” as they call it, but its inclusion as part of their activities shows how permeable and adaptable religious ideologies can be in the face of fashionable practices.
Other examples of such mixing and matching can be found in innovations such as Madan Kataria’s laughter yoga (41:43). Kataria’s brand is an eclectic blend of New Age and Hindu elements, laughter and breathing exercises, as well as light physical exercise (which includes, but is not limited to, asana practice). As such his approach does not seem to be a strongly asana-oriented style, but even less does it belong with the more staunchly religious bhakti traditions, for which his easygoing spiritual ideology is much too irreverent.
It may not be possible to arrange the diversity of yoga ideologies neatly on an ideological continuum, but sharing and blending of ideas and practices do take place, which is why I find it useful to think of the various approaches in terms of family resemblances, where each approach may share one or more features with a selection of others, as the case may be.
Different notions of yoga, enlightenment and the role of asana feature in Enlighten Up! Where the predominantly bhakti approaches tend to view asana practice condescendingly as a purely “physical activity” (59:09), yoga gurus who made asana their primary focus have a vested interest in framing it as spiritual as well. For instance, when Nick asks Pattabhi Jois whether the practice is spiritual or physical, he responds, “Both, both” (40:26). Iyengar, whose lifelong practice has aimed at perfecting asana, similarly touts it as inclusive of everything – both material and spiritual – as shown in this interaction between him and Nick:
Nick: “But but asana then, the way you’re describing it, it’s it’s a preparation for perceiving uh the spiritual” (48:52).
BKS Iyengar: “No doubt it’s a preparation, but everything is in it also. Yoga can take a man into two ways of living: enjoyment of life or liberation in life” (48:59).
In a similar vein, Gurusharanananda (who used to be an asana instructor) tries to claim an inward or spiritual focus for asana properly performed:
Gurusharanananda: “I’m really not acquainted how you are really doing ashtanga yoga in West. And most of the time these asanas are used for physical strength. Asana is more of the thoughts, more of the inside, very less outside. And what we are doing is ninety-eight percent outside, maybe ten, two or three percent or one percent inside” (1:05:27).
Predictably, modern appropriations of the Yoga Sutras (ascribed to Patanjali) tend to function as subtext in the asana-oriented environments, explicitly here in Jois:
Pattabhi Jois: “Yoga means your mind controlling capacity taking practice, that is yoga. Yoga is citta vrrti nirodha. ‘Citta’ means is mind control. Now your mind is not control you. Your mind is searching all the places. That is not good” (40:02).
Pattabhi Jois: “Two methods is there: outside, inside. Outside method: practice asanas, pranayama. Asana, yama, niyama, asana, pranayama. Inside: Pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi – inside method. Outside, correcting, possible. Inside, not correcting, impossible. You follow. Keep practice, practice, practice, practice. Last moment inside. God is looking possible” (40:45).
As is characteristic of a hardline Vaisnava stance, Shyamdas confronts Nick with a mutually exclusive choice between a yoga conception along the lines of the Yoga Sutras (which, due to sankhya influences, is often projected as non-devotional or not advocating belief in a personal God) and a path of bhakti or devotional surrender to God:
Shyamdas: “You have basically there are only two options in terms of the general yogavedic arena. One is that you follow the path of either yoga, or sankhya, where you through your effort of asana… you will be able to come to realisation. The other path is that you don’t believe in the ability that you can do it yourself, so you take the help of another. Okay now, that’s what bhakti is” (1:01:00).
However, yoga gurus such as B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and Dharma Mittra are clearly religious Hindus who would interpret the Yoga Sutras to include, rather than exclude, devotion and belief in God. Their yoga studios feature Hindu devotional paraphernalia such as pictures of Hindu deities, garlanded icons, incense, and/or devotional chanting and music. In Dharma Mittra’s classes, postural instructions are constantly interspersed with religious reminders of God’s omnipresence, for example:
Dharma Mittra (in slow singsong voice to accompaniment of harmonium): “Raaaise your riiight leg. Don’t bend your leeegs. Remember, God is everywheeere” (11:36).
One of the funniest moments in the film has Dharma Mittra doing one of his singsong pronouncements, “Oonly by His grace will be able to succeeed”, superimposed on a shot of him doing frog-like jumps on his hands while in firefly pose or Tittibhasana, resulting in loud, jarring thumps on the floor (12:03).
The manifold twists and reconceptualisations of contemporary yoga become even more amusing and absurd when we get to experiments such as Madan Kataria’s “laughter yoga”. Kataria confidently explains his yoga concept:
Madan Kataria: “Many Indians do yoga. But what we have done in laughter club is we combine laughing exercises with yoga breathing and some stretching exercises. That makes it a laughter yoga” (43:00).
He promotes the idea of an instantly attainable, easygoing and feel-good spirituality that mainly entails raising one’s own and “someone else’s spirits” through whatever means at your disposal, particularly laughter and play exercises, but mixed in with some yoga-like stretching and breathing, as well as what seems like a set of typically Christian virtues. When Nick asks Kataria if one can achieve enlightenment through laughter yoga (43:18), he responds:
Madan Kataria: “Why not? Why not? It’s much simpler. There are two ways we can become spiritual, one is by religious meditation yoga stuff. And I believe that’s very long and very difficult. It takes years to become spiritual. And another way you can become spiritual is raise your spirits, and raise someone else’s spirits, you’re spiritual. You don’t need to spend hours in temple chanting mantras, you play like a child, flow from your heart with your love, with your compassion, appreciation, forgiveness, you’re spiritual. You don’t have to go to temples [laughing]” (43:26).
Judging from the film and the spread of his laughter clubs, Kataria’s facile equation of spirituality with being in good spirits has gained him an enthusiastic audience.
In contrast to yoga styles with a spiritual dimension – if often only barely so – is the anti-New Age, gym-like variety of raucous wrestler Diamond Dallas Page (DDP). His Yoga for Regular Guys has a rather blunt, sexist emphasis on (hetero)sex appeal catering to macho straight men looking for a workout and a sexy experience. In a conversation with Nick, Page explains what his brand is all about:
Diamond Dallas Page: “[…] the sit around, the humming and the chanting, that’s not what yoga for regular guys is. Ours is about the workout, you know, and sweating your ass off” (23:20).
To Nick’s question where “the girls come into this” (23:39), he replies:
Diamond Dallas Page: “Well, for me, to grab the guys, there’s got to be an element, and where yoga [… is about?] Namaste, mine’s more about TNA” (23:41).
Not surprisingly, Page’s book, Yoga for Regular Guys: The Best Damn Workout on the Planet (2005), has a front cover that tempts “Yoga Babes included”, while the back cover loudly proclaims “YOGA: IT’S NOT JUST FOR WOMEN AND SCRAWNY NEW-AGE GIRLIE MEN”. It promises an “illustrated fitness program [that] delivers everything a guy could want: improved strength and endurance, a better sex life, reduced stress levels, and (most importantly) access to ridiculously hot yoga-babes”. At the end of a yoga session with the feel of “a porn movie set” (24:03), Nick queries, “How about enlightenment?” (24:56), only to have Page roaring with laughter.
Much as some yoga purists may want to claim the contrary, the emergence of such porny permutations of yoga is not altogether new. A preoccupation with yoga as physical workout and opportunity to display attractive bodily curves (in this case masculine ones) had in fact already been promoted among Indian physical culture and bodybuilding icons in the first half of the twentieth century. Instruction manuals such as those of K.V. Iyer, Ramesh S. Balsekar and Yogacharya Sundaram occasionally contain nude and semi-nude poses of asanas alongside classical Grecian postures (plus a smattering of hatha yoga philosophy) with the intention of showing off the perfectly proportioned human physique and guiding readers (especially male ones) towards attaining it themselves.
Enlighten Up! touches on the widely divergent views of yoga’s history held among popular yoga teachers themselves and vis-à-vis scholars of anthropology and religious studies. The film starts with a series of telling statements from US teachers concerning their perspectives on yoga’s age:
Cyndi Lee (OM Yoga): “Yeah, yoga’s 5 000 years old” (01:21).
Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa (Golden Bridge Yoga): “It was 40 000 yrs ago that this Kundalini Yoga started” (01:23).
Baron Baptiste (Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga): “That’s a good question. I don’t know too… too much the history…” (01:29).
Judith Lasater (Restorative Yoga & Therapeutics): “Some figures I’ve seen are 5 000 years” (01:33).
Natasha Rizopoulos (Yoga Works): “I think of yoga as being a 2 000-year-old practice, but I’m not sure where I got that idea” (01:36).
In contrast to the above claims are the following views from two well-known scholars in the history of yoga visited by Nick about two months into his yoga immersion:
Joseph Alter (Dept. Anthropology, Pittsburgh University): “Yoga as we know it today is really only about a hundred years old. Without documentary evidence, you’re left to conclude that it was really reinvented towards the end of nineteenth century” (Day 58; 20:03).
David Gordon White (Dept. Religious Studies, University of California): “In popular South Asian traditions that have a pedigree going back at least a thousand, more than a thousand years, the image of the yogi is of a kind of sorcerer, a wandering mendicant who comes into a village and leaves in his trail death and destruction. So this is a whole side to the phenomenon of the yogi that has been ignored in scholarly and popular literature. And it really is the image of the yogi that, if you ask a villager in India or Nepal today what’s a yogi, that is the sort of answer they’ll give you. The yogi is the bogeyman, yogis steal away children, yogis steal away the daughters of villagers” (20:24).
At dispute here between contemporary yoga enthusiasts and scholars is whether the popular yoga practices of today can accurately claim links to ancient – or even just medieval – yoga practices, or whether today’s yoga is really a thoroughly modern invention of the past century or so. To clarify the difference in perspectives, I devote the rest of this section to a brief look at the scholarly viewpoint as articulated by David Gordon White in one of his works.
In his Sinister Yogis, White (2009) investigated the practices and lifestyles of medieval yogis, finding that they had been far more interested in sorcery, supernatural powers and controlling the bodies of others than in quiet contemplation, detachment and liberation. Moreover, their activities and worldviews were decidedly different from contemporary yoga’s preoccupation with modern discourses on health, hygiene, fitness and body aesthetics. Yoga’s earliest meanings, however, did not originate with these medieval yogis, but in the more distant past of the second millennium BCE and the emergence of the Vedas. According to White (2009:64), in the Vedas the term ‘yoga’ originally signified “the yoking of horses to war chariots in preparation for battle”. But from the Vedas onward ‘yoga’ also acquired a more metaphorical meaning which
“involved yoking oneself to other beings from a distance—by means of one’s enhanced power of vision – either in order to control them or in order to merge one’s consciousness with theirs. When those other beings were divine, even the absolute itself, this sort of yoking was cast as a journey of the mind across space, to the highest reaches of transcendent being” (White, 2009:44-45).
However, the notion of “‘yoga’ as a path to salvation” did not make its appearance as a full-fledged system, but rather emerged as a “collection of speculations” in the centuries around the beginning of the common era and just before the compilation of the Bhagavad Gita in 200-400 CE and the Yoga Sutras in 350-450 CE (White, 2009:40, 38).
Yoga practitioners today who consider yoga a spiritual path and who take their practice seriously enough to read texts like the Yoga Sutras (ascribed to Patanjali) and the Bhagavad Gita, are often taught by their gurus to interpret the Bhagavad Gita as supportive of yoga as a path to liberation. For instance, in Enlighten Up! Norman Allen shows Nick his tattered old copy of the Bhagavad Gita (28:54) and tells him that the “Gita is important depending upon who interpreted it for you” (29:08). Allen then makes Nick read a passage that states, “The sum total of the habits of a man is his nature. It has come about as a result of his giving himself over to the bent of his mind” (29:15), before proceeding to tell Nick: “They are all trying to explain that one thing” (29:31). The film then jumps to one of Nick’s sceptical queries, but given that Allen elsewhere teaches Nick, “The job is to eradicate all of your karmas. You don’t do nothing for the small self” (32:00), he is presumably here also about to launch into an interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita that privileges what White (following Stuart Sarbacker) calls the “cessative” goal of yoga – namely, “the suppression of the mind and senses as a means to ending one’s this-worldly existence, and with it, suffering” (2009:45).
According to White, however, the compilers of the Bhagavad Gita – far from truly condoning such “cessative” goals – were supporters of a new devotional “sectarian theism” who reacted against the yoga and samkhyan paths to salvation by
“arguing for the superiority of the path of devotion (bhakti yoga) over and against not only these specific [yoga] paths or lifestyles but also the practice of yoga tout court, which was so in vogue at the time, particularly among the warrior aristocracy” (White, 2009:40).
According to White (2009:40), in the Bhagavad Gita the strategy of these devotional sectarians was to qualify and extend the term ‘yoga’ by adding an assortment of prefixes to it, among others, “bhakti, jñāna, karma, saṃnyāsa, and – most significantly for its royal audience – aiśvara, the yoga of royal mastery”. They hereby reduced the term ‘yoga’ to the very general meaning of “‘way’ or ‘path’ or ‘method’” (40). In thus generalising yoga’s meaning and adding bhakti as one of its modifiers, the devotional sectarians wanted to undermine yoga’s pre-existing meanings and steer it towards its opposite – a dualistic devotion to a personal god, Krishna – which they now promoted as the term’s primary meaning (40-41). Incidentally, it is this kind of strategy that can still be seen at work in the utterances of the bhaktas featuring in Enlighten Up!, for instance when claiming that “the real yoga is the yoga of bhakti” (59:40).
White (2009:45) also explains how the Patanjalian concept of nirodha – yoga as the cessation of changing states of mind – was not what yogis had historically been about. Instead, the practices and goals of yogis since the earliest times can be more accurately described as aimed at achieving “this-worldly self-deification”, which included the attainment of supernatural powers and enjoyments (45). White therefore also takes issue with the principal commentators and scholars in the history of the interpretation of the Yoga Sutras, who happened to be primarily philosophers rather than yoga practitioners. Similar to the devotional sectarians mentioned above, these scholars “denied the link between yoga and ‘yoking’ or ‘union’” (42) and largely ignored the parts of the Yoga Sutras closest to yoga’s original meaning of ‘yoking’, namely the section dealing with supernatural powers. In their case, however, they did not do so in favour of devotion to a personal god, but rather in favour of samkhyan interpretations which privileged dry contemplation “over ‘wet,’ yogic experience” (42), holding that “disengagement of the mind and intellect from sensory stimuli is the sole effective means to true cognition and ultimate freedom” (41). This kind of interpretation is also dominant in today’s transnational yoga scene, but it does not reflect the etymology of the word, nor the practices of historical yogis. White explains:
“It has been the equation of yoga with meditation or contemplation that has been most responsible for the skewed interpretations that have dominated the historiography of yoga for much of the past one hundred years. My point here is that the recent history of interpretations of the YS [Yoga Sūtras] and BhG [Bhagavad Gītā], carried out for the most part by historians of philosophy, has abusively identified accounts of meditation (jhāna, dhyāna) – from the earlier Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain textual record – as accounts of yoga, while generally ignoring accounts of yoga in which the term yoga itself or some other derivate of the verb *yuj, ‘to yoke,’ was employed, and of which there were many, in the ancient Hindu scriptures in particular. Furthermore, in so doing, historians have largely passed over the YS’s third section, neglecting the very set of aphorisms that carry forward the earlier ‘yoking’ paradigm and constitute the most salient link between the earliest sources and the yoga of the Tantras and sinister yogi narratives of the medieval period” (White, 2009:42).
In short, the conceptions of yoga’s nature and goals popular among today’s yoga enthusiasts and gurus owe more to the ideals and theorising of philosophers and a variety of modern influences, than to the actual lifestyles and practices of ancient and medieval yoga practitioners whose main aims were the achievement of supernatural powers and pleasures. The lack of a historically sensitive awareness within the frameworks of contemporary yoga enthusiasts and gurus, particularly as regards the disjuncture between present and past yoga practices, is unfortunate. As White remarks in an interview for The Magazine of Yoga:
“You know, it’s impossible to do what they [yoga gurus] do without some kind of editing and synthesis. Anything more accurate will get in the way of their high paced yoga circuit economy. This oversimplification of yoga is the definition of fundamentalism. We know that, and we know where fundamentalism leads” (David Gordon White quoted in Maier-Moul, 2010).
Yoga may have mushroomed into an international fad with classes being offered around the globe, but it is fairly evident that the yoga studios Nick and Kate visited in the US and India were mostly frequented by Westerners and to some extent urban, middleclass Indians – for whom asana practice is equally a new phenomenon (as opposed to an age-old home-grown spiritual tradition practiced by their families and forebears). This point is made by both Nick and Kate in interviews after the film’s release. Nick describes his Indian experience as follows:
“It was very enlightening to go to India and to see the big yoga shala’s in India were filled with Westerners. This was all new for them like it was for us and you ask people about yoga, like the taxi driver in Bombay, and he says ‘ah yes, mind control.’ There’s not big postural yoga tradition in India. It’s way bigger in the West and some of the classes we went to they were inspired by Madonna. And what is the big state sponsored official Indian yoga? It’s yoga competitions, with gold medals and stuff like that, who can do the best headstand. I had to go [to India] to fully appreciate just how much you didn’t have to go (laughs). I still recommend that people go and practice yoga in India because it’s a great way to travel, but don’t expect that you’re finding something more authentic or better for you in any way. But some people are into that and I think that’s great too. If you want to go and stay in Mysore and practice with Sharath and do ayurvedic medicine and live the whole thing, it’s great. But to me it’s not necessarily more authentic than going to Core Power Yoga. It’s just different. It’s perfectly legitimate either way” (Nick Rosen quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
Kate echoes these observations:
“The kind of curious thing is to see the East and West stances back and forth. When we headed over to India, we thought we would see something more ‘authentic.’ When we showed up in India, the only people we saw practicing yoga were Westerners, except for when we went to big cities. In the big cities, we found ‘power’ yoga studios cropping up, because of Madonna or Sting doing yoga. But most Indians don’t do the physical process which most Westerners consider to be yoga. It was interesting to see the different interpretations” (Kate Churchill quoted in Shoquist, 2009).
Similarly in another interview she says:
“The irony was that we went to India thinking wow this is really the source, but when we go there the yoga that seemed really significant had nothing to do with our yoga. So it’s just a matter of what you want to study. It doesn’t really matter, you could do it in Idaho if you found the right teacher who suited you and if you found the right source of material” (Kate Churchill quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
Ironically, it was Kate’s desire to “cut through the commercialism of the yoga industry” (Enlighten Up! Digital Press Kit, p.7) that inspired the search for a more authentic yoga in its supposed birthplace, India. But instead, the ‘yoga’ they found in India mostly consisted of religious devotion (devoid of asana) to Hindu deities, or commercialised asana practice inspired by Western pop culture icons and a competitive sports paradigm. It is not clear whether they also encountered modern yoga’s more extremist Hindu nationalist permutations, such as the use of sun salutations as a militaristic form of exercise drill.
The combination of a simplified, historically inaccurate and unquestioning belief system with a competitive, shamelessly market-driven industry characterises much of contemporary yoga (as indeed charismatic transnational movements of other religious flavours). Kate’s dissatisfaction with commercialised yoga led her to believe the true teacher she was seeking would not be “someone in the mainstream and the marketing and having to support a 8,000 square foot space and have dvds and be on the circuit” (Kate Churchill quoted in Espat, 2008). In Enlighten Up! she illustrates the capitalist and achievement-driven nature of transnational yoga by stringing together yoga celebrities’ boasts of their venue expansion and production of books, videos and accessories:
Cyndi Lee (OM Yoga): “I have a big studio in New York” (01:55).
Natasha Rizopoulos (Yoga Works): “… and I teach private classes. I live in Los Angeles” (01:56).
Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa (Golden Bridge Yoga): “And we’re expanding to 18 000 square feet” (01:58).
Rodney Yee (Yee Yoga): “I have two books” (02:01).
Baron Baptiste (Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga): “I have three books” (02:01).
Cyndi Lee (OM Yoga): “I have written four books” (02:02).
Judith Lasater (Restorative Yoga & Therapeutics): “I have four books” (02:03).
David Swenson (Ashtanga Yoga): “A warehouse that ships out…” (02:03).
Ana Forrest: “420…” (00:02:05).
Rodney Yee (Yee Yoga): “… videos” (02:06).
Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa (Golden Bridge Yoga): “… even like cotton sheets” (02:06).
It is interesting to compare these market-driven, sales-oriented markers of outward achievement (e.g. private classes, books, videos, warehouses, big studios) supplied by yoga instructors on American soil – many of whom have created their own innovative yoga brands with matching accessories – with the more spiritual-intellectual guru legitimation process that happens when Shyamdas introduces Nick to Gurusharananda on Indian soil (see next section).
After the yoga project, Nick would use his subversive skills to undermine the commercialism of the yoga market by cashing in on as many free classes as possible:
“I do go to studios and I find it’s amazing how many free classes you can cycle through. There’s this whole art of getting free classes. I find I enjoy yoga so much more when it’s free, I don’t know why” (Nick Rosen quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
When introducing Nick to yet another Hindu religious personage, Shyamdas tries to impress upon Nick the swami’s admirable credentials, in the process making sure his litany of praise does not go unheard by the swami himself. Swami Gurusharanananda, however, interrupts Shyamdas midway to emphasise a different list of his own achievements:
Shyamdas (gushing to Nick in the swami’s presence): “This man, swamiji, guruji, he knows many languages. He speaks to me in Sanskrit, he speaks to me in Braj Basa, he speaks to me in Hindi, he speaks Bengali. He has studied in Kashi, which is the great seat of learning in India. And he lives in Braj, which is the seat of…” (1:04:13).
Gurusharanananda (interjecting sweetly, but firmly): “And luckily God arranged for me… I’m a science student too, I’m a science… student of philosophy also. And I’m a student of religion also. I also, in a very important ashram in Rishikesh, I was a yoga instructor there. Yes. And so, you can ask any type of question as many times as you want” (1:04:29).
We see here that Shyamdas chooses to focus first and foremost on the swami’s multilingualism – perhaps partly because it allows him to simultaneously compliment himself on his own knowledge of the same Indian languages (with whatever spiritual and mystical import he attaches to them) – and secondly on the swami’s intellectual and residential links to Indian geographical sites with religious significance for Hindus.
Gurusharanananda himself, however, is eager to point out, firstly, that he is a student of science, and secondly of philosophy, then of religion, and lastly that he was a yoga instructor “in a very important ashram in Rishikesh” (all of which were of course arranged by God). Although he is keen to emphasise his all-round mastery of many fields of learning, including his ability to answer all types of questions (as per the general expectations of a guru), Gurusharanananda clearly deems it most important to signal to a Westerner that he studied (natural) science, and seems to be priding himself on it, although he does not go into any details as to what those studies may have consisted of.
I imagine on American soil New Agey yoga teachers would be less likely to impress students with claims of having studied science, and more likely to attract interest with exotic tales of spiritual quests in India and its dramatic impact on their lives. However, even though Western yoga students may not be in awe of a Western yoga teacher for having studied science (which, after all, is rather commonplace and often seen as contrary or inferior to the spiritual quest), they may nevertheless be impressed by an Indian guru’s acceptance of, and familiarity with, science. Such familiarity may be taken as an indication of the guru’s awareness of all things – both ancient and modern – and a sign that s/he is able to understand and guide students with a Western background. At least, such were the sentiments I used to entertain as yoga student and devotee – having ceased to value science, but suddenly very taken by the charismatic Indian guy in white robes who speaks charmingly of electrons whirling about in an atom as metaphor for the human condition. Before dreams of enlightenment swayed me, I used to frown upon the superficial, wishy-washy appropriations of quantum mechanics by New Age authors bent on proving universal consciousness, but once I started hearing similar expressions from the tongue of my Guru, they were suddenly catapulted not only into plausibility, but even scarier: truth.
Gurus such as Gurusharanananda are well aware how strategically playing the science card can enhance their attractiveness to potential followers, especially in the initial wooing phases. Platitudes notwithstanding, Gurusharanananda’s lip service to science and his seemingly open-ended approach certainly appeared effective in reassuring an increasingly edgy Nick – worn out by Shyamdas’s vigorous proselytising and Kate’s exacting demands – that all decisions are up to him and that he need not let go of his “godless” worldview. But how long he would have been allowed to remain “godless” if he chose to become a student of Gurusharanananda, is another question.
In committing to the yoga project Nick was trying to see if it could bring him “physical and mental fitness” (28:03). Notwithstanding his cautiously sceptical attitude, he may even have secretly hoped for an experience of transformed and expanded consciousness. I doubt Nick would have complained if enlightenment in some or other form unexpectedly came his way. In fact, he was reasonably open to the possibility of enlightened beings existing, accepting Paul Brunton’s account of his encounters with Ramana Maharishi as factual evidence of the latter’s enlightened state:
Nick (responding to Norman Allen’s comment that Paul Brunton was a journalist like Nick]: “Well that’s what I like, I see Paul Brunton, you know, when he’s writing this book [A Search in Secret India] and he’s going to India, he’s saying look, I’m a journalist, I need… it’s not enough for me to just to listen to some guy who says that, you know, he’s enlightened and here’s how to do it. He says I need to know, and when he meets Sri Ramana Maharishi, he sits down in front of the guy and he’s just like, ‘oh my god!’, he doesn’t even have any questions for him. He’s… he feels his vibrations, and it’s just obvious, everything falls away, here’s an enlightened being” (29:51).
Nick comments that he would not mind finding someone like this since it seems to be “the quick way [to enlightenment]” (30:23). Incidentally, it was not through asana or hatha yoga practice that Ramana Maharishi achieved his supposed realisation. But be that as it may, during the course of Nick’s yoga journey various gurus, instructors and co-students tempted him with a range of claims concerning yoga’s capacity to produce equally amazing results:
Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa (Golden Bridge Yoga): “If you just follow this path as a yogi, it will deliver you to every dream. It’s the most beautiful path in the whole world” (00:53).
ISHTA Yoga student: “It’s just this incredible, unbelievable feeling of goodwill and warmth and love and acceptance and…” (7:37).
ISHTA Yoga student (responding to Nick’s comment that some people told him you can actually have an orgasm while you meditate): “Yes yes, you do, yes. But even better than an orgasm. Better than any orgasm you’ve ever had. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what is this, what is happening?’ I’m lying down in savasana and this thing is happening” (7:52).
Goddess SoFree (Bikram Yoga student): “Your sleep will be better. Your love life will be better, you know. And you’ll probably figure out some great ways to make more money” (9:20).
Baron Baptiste (Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga): “[Yoga is] a great workout, amazing physical exercise and workout” (00:19).
Beryl Bender Birch (The Hard & the Soft Yoga Institute): “[Yoga is] empowerment” (00:32).
Rodney Yee (Yee Yoga): “[Yoga] really engages the totality of who I am as a human being” (00:28).
BKS Iyengar: “By the grace of God, [yoga is] a subjective way of, you know, eradicating the the instinctive weaknesses of human being. [Yes for some?] it may be quick, for some it may be slow. But change has to take place, transformation has to take place, whoever it may be, in whatever average intellectual condition they are” (48:33).
BKS Iyengar: “Yoga can take a man into two ways of living: enjoyment of life or liberation in life” (49:04).
In other words, yoga promises to deliver anything and everything – from health, wealth, strength, fitness, empowerment, intelligence, goodwill, love and great sex to holistic transformation, self-sufficiency and liberation. Iyengar assures Nick, “The channels are open both ways I’m telling you now. Which way – how you use it.” (49:41). In the end little of this transpires for Nick, however. Mainly he says yoga “makes me feel really good, um physically very good for me, increases my flexibility” (1:13:24), though often enough he looks a bit spent from overexertion.
One could argue that in making one feel good (fitter, healthier, more confident, etc.) yoga is doing no more than what is generally expected from any form of physical exercise. Indeed, at the start of Enlighten Up! Nick says, “In a lot of ways physical fitness has been the clearest recipe for happiness that I’ve found in life” (5:28) and fairly early on in the yoga project, he comments:
Nick: “What’s really made sense to me the most is people just talking about how, like, that the physical, that the asanas are a preparation for something, and like that makes sense to me, I mean, because when I feel good it’s like I feel much more closer to… [waving his hand up in the air…]” (11:02).
Are these feel-good results many people get from yoga any different from what one gains from, say, rock climbing, which is an activity Nick appears to have done before he started yoga (5:22) and later returned to (1:16:16)? Because although Nick continued doing a fair amount of yoga right after the yoga project, eventually his practice dwindled to the occasional class: once a month or once a week or sometimes months without any (YogaDork, 2009). When comparing his earlier “yoga shape” to his shape a few years later – now mostly running and climbing for exercise – he finds the main trade-off is between great openness and flexibility versus a stronger, more “well-rounded shape”:
“As we all know yoga can be a little bit like crack cocaine – hard to kick – so I kept doing it quite a bit when I got back. It’s kinda sad, I think about how open and flexible my body was at the time. I’m in pretty good shape now that I live out in Boulder, maybe even in some ways better well-rounded shape, stronger in some ways, but as far as my yoga shape, I miss those days when I could just do a forward bend and press my chin up against my thighs. It was nice. But those days are long past” (Nick Rosen quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
The main difference between New Agey asana practice and secular forms of exercise seems to be that the former is packaged with an add-on spiritual philosophy which capitalises on the beneficial effects of physical exercise. Given that physical exercise in and of itself tends to bring about a greater sense of wellbeing, health, confidence, achievement and energy, its results can easily be co-opted into validating a spiritual-religious philosophy of general optimism, universal connectedness and individual spiritual progress. Conversely, such a feel-good spiritual philosophy may psychologically reinforce and heighten pleasant sensations and emotions generated by physical exercise, partly by infusing them with an esoteric dimension and greater sense of purpose. With enough religious inspiration one could arguably seize upon any form of physical exercise (whether asana practice, running or climbing, etc.) and transform it into a religious practice by packaging it with a similar philosophy, finding that it yields more or less similar results. In this regard, it is interesting to consider Nick’s reaction to the inculcation of spiritual and moral instruction during yoga classes (as recounted by him in the YogaDork interview after the film’s release):
“Sometimes I would squirm at the idea of these half-baked new-age nostrums I’d learn in yoga class, and despite my resistance they seep in. But they seep in because they’re good. They’re popular because they’re good. I don’t think they’re popular because they’re ancient, frankly. I don’t think it has anything to do with it. I think they’re effective ways for contemporary people who go through life.
There was a lot of great stuff and it was kinda shoey, ok so we’re stretching what does that have to do with compassion or non-attachment? But then I had this thing where I was like OK well because this is like this big experiment I have to keep my mind open and I’m not going to allow myself to resist these positive ideas. That would be a real shame. Just because I had a problem with the way they were delivered or with the qualifications of the person who was delivering them, would I allow myself to miss out on the lessons anyway? Compassion is good. Bringing balance and non-attachment into your life, those are important things to do. So despite my resistance they resonate to this day” (Nick Rosen quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
In other words, Nick did not really feel that qualities like compassion or non-attachment were generated by the asana practice itself, but rather verbally taught and encouraged by the teachers.
At the end of the yoga project, due to Kate pressurising him and presumably in part to avoid getting her back up, Nick had waffled on about yoga giving him a second perspective, saying “it inherently makes you more compassionate, more patient, more understanding… um to be aware that yo… your own viewpoint, your own consciousness is just one in a whole big pool of of them. And each one is basically equally as valid as the other” (1:14:15). But the question again arises whether New Agey yoga is at all special in producing such effects (assuming for the moment it actually does produce these effects in the majority of practitioners, about which I am far from convinced). Because if it is all about cultivating greater awareness, understanding, balance, compassion and patience, does the impact of a good dose of New Agey philosophy really differ dramatically from the impact of reading a good selection of world literature, or being exposed to other cultures and worldviews (of which Nick had experienced a fair amount), or engaging in any activity that brings you in touch with the lives and values of a range of different people? The latter may in fact be more effective in bringing about understanding and balance than the New Agey lessons in yoga class where frequently a single philosophy or outlook dominates, and sometimes in a very prescriptive way with rigid ideas about ideal lifestyle, diet, health and spiritual attainment.
Taking a spiritual philosophy or practice (even one that preaches awareness and compassion) too seriously, rather incongruously tends to bring about its very opposite, namely lack of understanding, intolerance and impatience, as could be seen in Kate’s irritation with Nick’s sceptical attitude and Shyamdas’s repeated insistence that Nick adopts bhakti as spiritual path.
Although the yoga experiment had an impact on Nick – in no small part due to all the travelling and different people he met – it fell short of any dramatic transformation, let alone enlightenment. Much later, when he looks back on the experience, he comments:
Nick: “In the weeks and months following the end of the formal yoga project, I remember feeling frustrated by the fact that Kate was somehow disappointed in me. I don’t know whether to feel naïve believing in the possibilities of yoga or too cynical. Had I missed an opportunity to let yoga change my life, or fooled myself by ever thinking it was possible in the first place?” (1:15:25).
Veering between self-doubt and cynicism is not an uncommon experience among dropouts from yoga or other spiritual paths, or at least among those who took it fairly seriously to start with, buying into claims of its tremendous life-transforming potential, but then failing to see much of the latter transpire. Generating self-doubt in adherents and dropouts is one way in which spiritual ideologies protect themselves against being challenged for non-delivery of promises: If you fail to see any major transformation, it must be because you did not practice hard enough or long enough, or because your karma is proving a temporary obstacle. In any event, you yourself are at fault, not the practices or beliefs. All you need do is maintain faith and keep practicing. After all, if change does not happen in this lifetime, it will surely come in one of your future lives.
Yoga celebrities like B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois might argue that Kate and Nick made a mockery of yoga by assuming a major transformation could be wrought in six months, something requiring an entire life or even lifetimes of practice (even more so if you are after enlightenment). In Enlighten Up! Iyengar mentioned to Nick that he had to practice seven, eight years before obtaining mere physical health from yoga (47:47), and only much later was able to consider it a philosophical or spiritual practice. In a similar vein Pattabhi Jois told Nick: “One month, two months, one year, two years, ten years – no use. Whole life. Whole life is practice. That is method” (41:15). But if an entire life or lives of practice may be required for results to show, then it becomes impossible to verify the extraordinary claims made in the name of yoga. By pre-empting the very possibility of any conceivable counterevidence, such claims of yoga’s power to deliver transformation become ideological, to be accepted on the basis of religious faith alone.
Yoga is often thought to trigger physical and emotional release as well as increasing self-knowledge by bringing out hidden aspects of one’s personality. Before leaving India, Nick says to Kate, “On the mental level [yoga] kind of opens up this black box of my personality that I can then look into” (1:13:31). In the film there is also talk of strong emotions like crying being ‘released’ by practice. For instance, recounting events from a nightmarish dream, Nick says, “[…] and then I just started sobbing. I remembered Kate asking whether I’d ever had one of those breakdown moments from yoga, where you just start crying and release everything” (54:12). Other yoga students make similar remarks:
Yoga student 1: “Just started bursting out in tears” (1:18:47).
Yoga student 2: “Sweating or crying, who knows?” (1:18:48).
Yoga enthusiasts usually interpret such reactions as a kind of beneficial emotional cleansing brought about by yoga. But whether it is really a case of purification and release, or rather the symptoms of excessive overstretching, is an open question. In my case, at least, I can remember how intense frequent yoga practice – and more so in the case of backbends, pranayama and meditation – had me in an irritable state much of the time, with joints feeling fragile and nerves raw, both physically and emotionally. It is perhaps less a case of bringing out hidden parts of one’s personality for inspection, than subjecting oneself to unreasonable conditions and facing predictable results. It might be interesting to compare the emotional effects of overly vigorous yoga practice with those of other physically demanding sports (both the stretching and non-stretching varieties).
At times Nick openly acknowledges that the intense practice is taking a physical toll. During his practice with Norman Allen he reports, “I like Norman a lot, but I’m really sore” (Day 108, 33:13), and confronts Allen with it:
Nick: “Norman, you know how I was all kinda messed up in class today? I’m feeling supertight in my hamstrings, my whole body kinda aches, I have a headache. The most different thing I’m doing is this intense yoga with you, you know, in the morning” (33:18).
It is rather interesting how Norman Allen then quickly turns the situation around so that Nick ends up blaming himself for having pushed himself too hard, and no longer Allen, the instructor, even though scenes of the class situation (30:56) and massage session (32:28) suggest that Allen may not always have been too gentle and was probably partly to blame for manoeuvring, or encouraging, Nick into difficult poses. However, Allen ends up steamrollering and berating Nick:
Norman Allen: “Oh, you’re blaming it on me now” (33:34).
Nick: “Well, it’s not a blame thing, it’s just change, you know what I mean. But I’m just wondering if you know what’s it all about?” (33:35).
Norman Allen: “Am I been pressing you harder than you been doing been usually been uh pressed?” (31:41).
Nick: “A little bit and a little more” (33:44).
Norman Allen: “In what area?” (33:46).
Nick: “[Uh well… ?]” (33:46).
Norman Allen (interjecting): “Or you been pressing yourself or have I been pressing you?” (33:47).
Nick: “I’ve been pressing myself, you have been…” (33:48).
Norman Allen (interjecting): “[And… ?] I told you not to. I keep telling you not to resist, but you got compulsed into, you know, accelerating your practice in this short period of time, thinking that you gonna get a token if you can, you know, you know, get your legs around your head or something like that and the bells are gonna go off. It aint happening like that, let me tell you, huh. [inaudible mumbling] Accelerated, accelerated yogi course. Too many cooks in the kitchen” (33:49).
At various other times during the course of the yoga project Nick also shows signs of mild physical tiredness, exhaustion or overexertion, for instance during Cyndi Lee’s class (6:26; 6:37-6:42) filled with “intermediate […] yoga experts” whom he did not experience as very “welcoming” (10:20); Otto Cedeño’s Bikram Yoga class (8:37-8:45; 9:03-9:27) done in a heated studio of 105°F (41°C) which afterwards left him flat on his back too exhausted to communicate, and Pattabhi Jois’ strenuous Ashtanga Yoga classes (38:18) which they attended for about a month in Mysore (YogaDork, 2009). Other examples include Nick crouching down in child pose and exclaiming “Uh! It’s too advanced!” after an unsuccessful attempt at a kind of dog pose with feet up the wall during a Jivamukti Yoga class (15:07), and talking to Norman Allen about “twisting myself into a pretzel in the yoga studio” (28:11).
A degree of tiredness and soreness is to be expected when taking up any form of exercise, especially initially. It becomes problematic, however, when physical exercise is cast as a means to spiritual progress, since this tends to encourage the more eager, spiritually inclined practitioner to commit to prolonged excessive practice – a position Nick also seems to have been in (at least for the few months the yoga spell lasted). One of the other yoga students we encounter in the film is an enthusiastic Bikram Yoga practitioner (Goddess SoFree), who speaks of being “a fit vessel to serve God more” (1:19:34). Having started yoga at age 62 (8:48), she goes to at least two classes a day, wishing to do even more, except they would not allow her (1:20:00). Such fervour for practice is not surprising given how contemporary yoga ideology often equates (physical) exertion with quick spiritual transformation. It is a theme that frequently features in Enlighten Up! (also see next section):
Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa: “[Yoga] gives you a spiritual experience. You work hard, you sweat” (00:25).
Beryl Bender Birch: “This is a strong practice and the only thing that will ever transform you is practice” (00:32).
Yoga teachers and gurus may pay lip service to balance and moderation (as we have seen above with Norman Allen), but rather paradoxically these same teachers often teach vigorous yoga styles and extreme contortions, and inculcate a philosophy of one-pointed concentration, perfection and great intensity (appealing to the Yoga Sutras, no less), since this would supposedly lead to quicker realisation of the goal.
Equally disconcerting is the assumption that asana, as a presumed ancient spiritual practice intuited by wise enlightened beings, can only be good for you. Although not an issue explicitly addressed in the film, even medical doctors tend to assume that yoga is a gentle practice that can do no harm, frequently not hesitating to approve yoga practice for patients who they would otherwise dissuade from doing demanding forms of exercise. Where the public generally knows that every form of exercise not only comes with particular benefits, but also with certain types of risks and injuries (such as knee injuries from excessive running), ‘spiritual’ exercises such as yoga are believed to be inherently safe, leading practitioners to throw all caution to the wind. If anything goes wrong in yoga practice, it is believed to be the practitioner (or more rarely, the teacher) who did something wrong, rather than acknowledged that specific asanas (e.g. very asymmetric ones) may predispose one to certain injuries or exacerbate existing problems (such as back, neck, heart or blood pressure conditions).
What is needed is a more realistic approach to asana as a form of physical exercise rather than keeping it exempt from critique by cloaking it in the sacrosanct aura of an ancient spiritual or health practice. Like all forms of exercise, stretching, bending and twisting can have a beneficial impact on one’s health, but only if done moderately and with avoidance of the more extreme contortions – of which many figure in Enlighten Up!
During the filming of Enlighten Up! Nick often finds himself in environments where he faces pressure to commit to a particular practice and/or adopt it as spiritual goal. At times the encouragement is subtle, other times less so, as illustrated by various statements made by teachers, co-students and Kate throughout the film.
Kate expects an all-out commitment from Nick, which includes having to practice every day (25:30), and she gets frustrated when he does not do so (25:35). As she is intent on filming his entire transformation, she does not allow him leisure time free from the cameras (51:42; 51:55). Only after Nick stubbornly refuses that she films him on a date (51:51; 51:58), does she eventually (after two days of not talking to him) grant him a free night out (52:12). On the way out, Nick mentions that he will have to be up at 4 am the next morning for a “day of intensive silent meditation” (52:36), which means it will have to be an early night for him, and he adds with resignation, “They’re all early nights for me these days” (52:48). It is clear he is expected to sacrifice his regular leisure time and social interaction for the sake of concentrating on his yoga transformation.
Nick’s motivation and commitment are constantly questioned by Kate. At one point (15:26) she prompts Sharan Gannon and David Life of Jivamukti Yoga to find out the nature of Nick’s motivation (i.e. whether it is in some sense spiritual, hence Nick’s uneasiness):
Sharan Gannon: “Nick, why are you here? Why did you come [to all this?] this way?” (15:34).
Nick (joking, trying to escape the questioning): “[..?] I have to go to the bathroom” (15:39).
Sharan Gannon (to Kate): “You [wanna say?] you wanted that on film?” (15:45).
David Life (to Nick): “What are you looking for? Are you a seeker?” (15:47).
Sharan Gannon: “Nick, why… why did you come to visit us?” (15:49).
Nick: “You know… it’s sort of like I um… I’m not looking fff to believe anything beyond sort of what… (15:52).
David Life: “… can be proven to you” (16:07).
Nick: “… comes easy, what can be proven to me. I’m very, you know, it’s very like sort of evidence-based, almost…” (16:07).
David Life: “Then you came… you came to the right place” (16:12).
Nick: “… almost a journalistic approach” (16:13).
Sharan Gannon: “[The yogis are very?] practical minded. We agree, everything you said, we want the experience of it. We wanna feel it to be true. We don’t wanna take someone’s word for it” (16:14).
David Life: “In our yoga center we have a sign right before you go into the asana rooms, ‘Are you ready?’ And that means just what it says, ‘Are you ready?’” (16:25).
Sharan Gannon: “And only you can answer that” (16:35).
David Life: “We can’t say, ‘Yes, you’re ready’. Look, if you have any doubt in your mind that you’ve experienced all that life has for you, and you you really are interested in the possibilities that the yoga practice could hold for you, then you need to surround yourself with a group of people that stimulate that burning desire” (16:38).
Ironically, despite Gannon and Life’s claims to the contrary, they are pressurising Nick to be “ready” for yoga, since if he chooses not to buy into the yoga practice and its possibilities, he would be judged “not ready” (implicitly a lesser state) rather than considered to be simply exercising an intelligent, informed choice or following a personal preference. In other words, yoga practice is presented by them as a religious or spiritual call rather than treated as a neutral form of physical exercise such as running or swimming, where generally one would not ask someone if they were spiritually “ready” or pronounce a value judgement over their character should they decide not to take it up.
Later in the film, when Nick asks Pattabhi Jois, “If I’m not a so spiritual person, I can do the practice?” (40:28), Jois first responds with a concerned “Why? [i.e. why are you not spiritual]” (40:32), before proceeding:
Pattabhi Jois: “You take practice. Take this practice, automatically it’s coming. That is take practice, practice, practice” (40:33).
Jois’ assumption is that the practice will eventually transform Nick into a spiritual person.
The teachers Nick and Kate meet during the course of the yoga project often set themselves up as spiritual authorities and potential guides, sometimes in a very parental and infantilising manner. Gurusharanananda repeatedly addresses Nick as “my dear” and “my child” in a syrupy tone. For instance, when Nick apologises in advance for asking stupid or offensive questions, Gurusharanananda says encouragingly, “Answers are stupid. Questions are never stupid. Answers are stupid. Yes my child” (1:04:56) and when Nick then asks a question, he makes sure to compliment, “It’s a very good question you are asking, my dear” (1:06:15). To illustrate to Nick how everything is in the eye of the beholder, Gurusharananda employs an example at Kate’s expense (1:09:56), dubbing her alternately “sweet Kate” and “dirty Kate”, thereby delighting Nick, who immediately took to calling her “dirty Katie” (1:10:22; 1:12:03) as a way of venting his frustration with her.
Pattabhi Jois, after impressing on Nick and Kate the need for lifelong practice, receives a hug and a kiss from Kate, pats her on the back and offers her a photo with him (41:26). Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa features only briefly as interviewee, but seems the epitome of self-satisfied New Age dreaminess and sugary overconfidence, with extravagant claims about kundalini yoga’s age and spiritual superiority that would be hard to surpass (00:25; 00:53; 1:23; 01:58; 02:06). More earthy, but also fairly sure of himself – or at least of his ability to guide students – is Norman Allen, who Nick says is Kate’s “latest guru, a true Ashtanga Yoga Master” (26:04). Apart from his intense yoga classes (30:56), Allen tries to impress Nick with, among others, a heavy duty massage session (31:44-33:06) and some mild ‘tantric’ (according to him) shock tactics (32:53; 34:53).
At various points in the film different forms of flattery and sympathetic identification – both spiritual and material – are directed at Nick by yoga instructors and gurus, for example:
Cyndi Lee: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few. So we are all going to aspire to be like you today” (6:13).
Dharma Mittra (Dharma Yoga Center): “Well I’m glad you said that because when you… you did that affirmation that you don’t know, you’re not spiritual, actually you are. Because most people who say that ‘I am this, I am that’, they in reality not. The real gurus and saint they always say ‘I am nothing, I don’t know anything’” (13:15).
Sharon Gannon: “[The yogis are very?] practical minded. We agree, everything you said [about preferring an evidence-based approach], we want the experience of it. We wanna feel it to be true. We don’t wanna take someone’s word for it” (16:14).
Ravi Singh: “Kate told me a little bit about your life and your birthday and there’s a system of numerology that goes along with this yoga. Your birthday is 8-21-74, is that correct? It’s easy for you to be friends with women, I would think, you know” (9:39).
BKS Iyengar: “You want to improve, I want to improve. Same. You want to be a better intelligent man and I want also to be a better intelligent man” (49:16).
Gurusharanananda: “How much hard you are working there” (1:08:22).
In short, Nick is directly or indirectly complimented on being open, spiritual, honest, practical minded, independent, successful with women, and someone who exerts himself and wants to improve morally and intellectually. Although not impervious to such flattery and encouragement by teachers, Nick’s scepticism ensured that he was not so easily swayed into adopting any of them as teacher. A more impressionable student seriously in search of a guru might have swallowed the bait, though.
Most of the bhaktas in the film do not hesitate to tell Nick the object of his focus should be God. Deva Das says to him, “Make one goal that is God” (59:57) and another states, “I only pray God” (59:44). When Nick asks Guru Datt (a bhakti-oriented disciple of Neem Karoli Baba) whether enlightenment brings omniscience and cosmic knowledge and makes you more aware, Datt answers in the affirmative, but adds pointedly:
Guru Datt: “More aware of what? More aware of God” (1:00:33).
Gurusharanananda, on the other hand, takes due note of Nick’s strong resistance to religious devotion and his frustration with Shyamdas, and hastens to appease him:
Gurusharanananda: “Don’t embrace [Krishna]! I never said to you that you embrace Krishna! No, never embrace, never do it. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. Go on practicing what you are doing. If you want to believe in God, believe. If you don’t want to believe, don’t believe. And still you could be a religious person” (1:09:00).
When Nick is confused as to “what would make you religious or spiritual if you don’t believe” (1:09:13), Gurusharanananda quickly and cleverly replies that Nick only needs be himself, his “true self” (1:09:17). Of course, this “true self” can be interpreted in more than one way – either as the deepest inclinations of an embodied Nick with his entire personality and background, or as a rather abstract universal self, or as a particular omnipresent personal deity, such as Krishna. Nick himself is not sure how to find his “true self” and Gurusharananda responds by partly playing to the first meaning, reassuring Nick by implicitly encouraging him not to let himself be influenced by Shyamdas, nor to don Indian garb (which Nick had done) as this does not represent who he is as non-Hindu American or “godless guy from New York City” (1:08:48):
Nick: “It’s not so easy for me to just… sometimes I don’t trust myself to say, okay I’ll just find my true self. Are there… are there specific practices that one can engage in to help…?” (1:09:21).
Gurusharanananda: “As much as possible try to get rid what you are not and you are unnecessarily wearing on yourself [making as if putting on an item of clothing]. Try to get rid of this” (1:09:33).
Gurusharananda quickly realised that he had to tailor his teachings to speak to the needs of a beleaguered Nick who was under significant pressure from Shyamdas to adopt Hindu devotional customs. Not uncommonly, in the game of guru wooing potential follower, a lot of reassurance and acceptance of an individual’s natural or habitual inclinations are signalled initially. Spiritual phrases are however employed in ambiguous ways, and where one meaning may be stressed initially for the sake of putting a newcomer at ease, it easily comes to be replaced by more restrictive meanings as one becomes integrated in a guru’s fold.
Despite claims of the tremendous transformative power of yoga, the yoga instructors and gurus in Enlighten Up! do not seem particularly ‘transformed’ themselves, but equally subject to common human frailties such as ambition, exhaustion, forgetfulness, incoherence, ill-health, weight issues and loss of temper.
During the course of one of Norman Allen’s conversations with Nick and Kate (some of which we discussed earlier in connection with Nick’s complaint of feeling “messed up”; 33:13), Allen himself seems a little tired, frayed and irritated (e.g. 33:49), and one could speculate that he too has been overexerting himself during classes and massages. Part of their conversation deals with a previous visit of Kate’s, when she was taken by an explanation of Allen’s concerning what yoga is truly about, namely “moksha”. Initially Kate tries to get Nick to question Allen about moksha (28:38), but apparently Nick did not do so to her satisfaction, and she ends up repeating her own query:
Kate: “I have a couple of questions. When I was here on a previous trip, you said, do you really wanna know what the secret of yoga is?” (34:15).
Norman Allen: “Who said that?” (34:22).
Kate: “You did, to me” (34:23).
Norman Allen: “I asked if you wanted to know that?” (34:24).
Kate: “Yeah, and I said, ‘Yeah, what is it?’” (34:26).
Norman Allen: “Yeah. You want to see if I remember what I told you?” (34:28)
Kate: “Yeah, I’m curious. [inaudible] No, you said it was moksha” (34:30).
Norman Allen: “Yeah, well moksha, mukti, huh that’s uh that’s uh release, that’s from that’s what we talked about [inaudible], it’s it’s liberation, huh, that’s a jivamukti, mukti come from moksha huh. Jivamukti, that’s a soul liberated while in body, huh, like that, but… [shifting his attention away from Kate] Nick! When I told you to go fuck yourself, that’s a tantric thing, that’s the complete round, to go back to the completeness, inside your whole unit not needing another entity, huh, to confuse the matter, huh. Of all the taping and all the things that we talked about, that was the most, as far as I’m concerned the most significant thing that you might wanna reflect upon, huh. Telling you the truth [serious, then laughs]” (34:37).
A typical assumption regarding the guru-disciple relationship is that the guru is capable of perfect recall of spiritual instruction previously imparted to a student, and Allen seems to be hinting here that this is what Kate might be expecting of him. He appears not to recall much of their previous conversation, however, and fails to give her a particularly helpful or inspired answer, instead quickly shifting his attention back to Nick, to whom he seems much more interested in conveying his idea of tantra as a kind of ‘fucking oneself’ or self-sufficiency.
What struck me most about B.K.S. Iyengar’s appearance in the film – perhaps because once upon a time I had hoped to gain serenity and tranquillity from yoga – was not only what Kate and Nick refer to as his “intense” personality, but also his restlessness, which is particularly evident in how he continuously wrings his hands. Yoga is also clearly not a foolproof antidote to irritability and anger. Stories about Iyengar’s students being reproved in none too gentle a manner must have reached Nick and Kate, since Nick was a little apprehensive about their interview with him:
Nick: “Today we had an interview with the legendary B.K.S. Iyengar. It’s he, more than anyone else, who’s responsible for the current yoga craze in the West. In the creative hands of this 86-year-old man, yoga became a truly physical art. I was nervous ’cause I had heard tales about the intense character and shifting tempers of the man they call the Lion of Puna” (46:18).
But a few intense moments apart, Iyengar treated them to an engaging three-hour interview (which they obtained thanks to Kate’s connection to Patricia Walden, one of his prominent students) (YogaDork, 2009). Says Kate in an interview after the release of the film:
“We walked into Iyengar being ready for a really fierce guy, and certainly he’s intense, but he was really welcoming and lovely and enthusiastic and had a great sense of humor” (Kate Churchill quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
Nick echoes her sentiments, if more irreverently:
“Meeting with BKS Iyengar was fascinating. That guy is really an individual and kind of nuts, and really just fun and interesting. He’s a character. He actually shed some interesting light” (Nick Rosen quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
During Kate and Nick’s time in Mysore, Pattabhi Jois was ill (he died five years later, in 2009, the year after the film’s release). They were granted a short interview with him in the third week of their practice at his yogashala. Assessing the conversation they had with him, Kate says:
“It was interesting – there were parts that were really spot on and made a lot of sense and there were other parts where he would kinda go off on a tangent and it was a little hard to follow him. His English is not as strong as Iyengar. I think, too, he wasn’t feeling so well. The thing about Pattabhi Jois is he was just a really sweet man to be around. He didn’t really talk a lot, but he would have a smile and a twinkle in his eye and you would just feel good. That was strong enough to get, more so than necessarily an elaborate description for debate or theory, from him. He was less inclined to engage in a verbal debate, but he was very active physically” (Kate Churchill quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
Smiling, being “really sweet” and having “a twinkle” in the eye is often a winning recipe for attracting students and Jois is not the only teacher in the film who has this capacity. Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa and Gurusharanananda, among others, also seem to excel in this. Being coherent, easy to follow and willing to engage in verbal debate may also help in drawing numbers, but is definitely not essential in the guru game. Frequently, a few cryptic phrases hinting at esoteric knowledge do the job equally well. An aura of spiritual confidence is important, however, and like Gurusharanananda, Pattabhi Jois is happy to receive kneeling students eager to touch a guru’s feet (37:52).
Both Kate and Nick were favourably impressed by Gurusharanananda. In his interview with Nick and Shyamdas, Gurusharanananda made sure to emanate an air of approachability and sweet acceptance. At the same time, however, he chooses to seat himself rather incongruously on a high dais with the massive head of a tiger exhibited in front of him (1:04:12), compelling his visitors to look up to him from where they are seated on the floor at his feet. It is a staging of paternalistic benevolence rather than humility, but it fulfils the emotional needs of his listeners, as Nick testifies later:
“Gurusharanananda – we call him Baba Claus with his big beard – he was edifying because he told us don’t worry about it. I was freaking out, Kate was freaking out, this felt like a total failure of an experiment and he just told us the experiment was the problem. You are yourself. It was a very simple thing, like Shakespeare’s ‘to thine self be true.’ It took the pressure off. I started to think about it a lot as a kind of self-analysis, and it didn’t conform to a specific spiritual tradition which was constantly a block because Kate kept bringing me to these people who kept insisting that the big deal was god. And that’s not what I believe, that’s not my universe” (Nick Rosen quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
Kate likewise found meeting with Gurusharanananda a positive experience:
“Like when we went in to see gurusharanananda we had no idea of anything about him, and in northern India we saw so many gurus and saints and babas we were joking about how we would see one or two a day. We saw so many people we didn’t really click with and it was very random and you would have an incredible experience, but it wouldn’t necessarily make any sense. When we walked in to see gurusharanananda we thought wow this guy has a really nice ashram, a lot of people are coming to visit him, it seems very well organized. That’s all we knew. We walked in and here is this man who was so eloquent and really lovely and welcoming, and we just engaged in an amazing conversation” (Kate Churchill quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
A comment by her in another interview presumably also refers to Gurusharanananda:
“There was this really great guru that we met toward the end that kind of strips away looking everywhere else and keeps bringing it back to us” (Kate Churchill quoted in Espat, 2008).
But what is it about Gurusharanananda that made them “click with” him and experience him as “edifying” and a “really great guru”? After all, none of what he says in the film is particularly new or enlightening, or even very “eloquent”. They could have received the gist of his message (namely, relax, be yourself) in any number of New-Agey yoga classes, self-help books or therapy sessions (or even Shakespeare! – as Nick points out). But the point is that the message carried much more weight coming from a robed and bearded charismatic Indian in an exotic (from a Westerner’s perspective) religious setup who evoked their childhood fantasies of Santa Claus, coupled with a little personal attention and a few sweet words of paternal guidance to assuage their insecurities. Such a combination of factors can make a significant emotional impact, especially under conditions of stress and unhappiness, which probably accounts for why so many people search out these gurus. Moreover, Gurusharanananda had a nice, well-organised ashram and already a crowd of followers. Notwithstanding Kate’s dissatisfaction with the commercialised yoga scene back in the US, it is hard to escape the typically human inclination of viewing such external trappings as conferring legitimacy and authenticity.
The existence of inconsistencies in gurus’ teachings and behaviour – from an aggressive sales-oriented approach, not making sense, irritability and sickness to ambition, self-deification and accepting worship from followers – seldom deter yoga enthusiasts or cause them to question the pedestals onto which their gurus have been raised. Ironically, the very things that should theoretically disqualify a teacher often prove to be a great drawcard with students.
The motivation behind the making of the film, as seen already, was largely Kate’s wish for a profound conversion or transformation for both Nick and herself, since she felt lacking in what she had achieved in her own yoga practice. In her fervour to make the six-month yoga project succeed she subjected Nick (and herself) to a fair amount of physical and emotional strain. She later said:
“[T]hrough the journey, my expectations made me more and more antagonistic to Nick. I became more wound up and agitated about what was happening. Nick became more determined to cling to his own identity” (Kate Churchill quoted in Yoga Nation, 2009).
Despite Kate’s expectations and all the intensive bending, twisting, stretching and interviewing, Nick seemed to remain relatively in control of his emotions and cautious in his responses to Kate (at least judging from what we see in the film), only occasionally letting pent-up frustration and anger show. The fact that he manages to keep a level head and avoids getting drawn into the fold of any of the charismatic teachers and gurus he encounters – while at the same time being acutely aware of Kate’s perspective and carefully sidestepping any too direct confrontations with her – may be due in part to the dual and contradictory influences of his parents (which latter he at one point acknowledges). With a New Age shamanic healer for a mother (04:15) and an attorney in criminal law for a father (04:10), it is not surprising that he is able to be reasonably sensitive and receptive in spiritual-religious contexts, yet maintaining a critical and questioning perspective. That it was not always an easy exercise for him becomes evident when he responds to Kate’s probing on this point:
Nick: “There is a kind of a duality between my father’s influence and my mother’s influence in my life, about hardheadedness and scepticism on the one hand, and um… kind of whimsy and love, on the other. And um… so it is… I am sort of confron… I would be maybe confronting a bit of … uh … an identity crisis if I was to … uh really give myself over to the practice” (54:44).
It is significant that Nick chooses to use the term “identity crisis” to describe the dilemma Kate is presenting him with, as it is a rather apt description of what occasionally happens when people (even willing and enthusiastic converts) do give themselves “over to the practice”, attempting to undo parts of their personalities in order to attain dramatic transformations, sometimes to ill effect.
Nick’s prior exposure to the New Age scene (observing his mother and her connections) may have contributed some immunity to the influence of the dynamic yoga teachers and charismatic gurus he meets. For instance, when Kate asks him over a meal and a beer what he thought of the Kundalini people, he laughs:
Nick: “They were a little kundaloony. They really kind of reminded me of like, you know, my mom’s New Agey friends type of people, like just clearly not, like I don’t feel comfortable around…” (10:36).
And after practice with Pattabhi Jois in Mysore – which as we have noted before involved students lining up to kneel and touch the feet of a seated Jois, as well as a fair amount of prayerful chanting – he says to Kate:
Nick: “[Quite?] an interesting experience. I kind of feel like an outsider here because I’ve been doing Ashtanga for a couple months, but it certainly hasn’t come to sort of dominate my psyche the way that it seems to… ah for these… yogis. My gut reaction was a little bit of a cult situation going on there at the yogashala [laughs]” (38:51).
Perhaps slightly ‘culty’ as well, is the way Kate and Shyamdas constantly try to steer Nick in a particular direction by interpreting, verbalising and shaping his experiences for him. However, where Kate is nudging him in the direction of asana, meditation and reflection, Shyamdas is urging him towards a spiritual commitment to bhakti (devotion). Ironically, just after Gurusharanananda has given the Nick the assurance that he himself is “the most important person, for any decision, all the decisions, all the practices or any practices” (1:08:00), Shyamdas happily dictates:
Shyamdas: “You should go for the heart issues [i.e. a devotional path] and not for the brain stuff” (1:08:35).
At which point Nick has had enough of Shyamdas’s pestering:
Nick: “Well uh, you you keep saying that Shyamdas, but you might be able to gather from this conversation that you [looking at Gurusharanananda] said uh take what you, what feels comfortable, what feels right. I’m a, you know, a godless guy from New York City. It doesn’t make sense necessarily for me to embrace bhakti and Krishna, because it’s not my own…” (1:08:38).
Kate started expressing her unhappiness with Nick’s spiritually noncommittal attitude from early on in the yoga experiment. The following interaction between them took place about three months into the project:
Kate: “Okay Nick, what’s your personal attitude towards yoga right now?” (24:49).
Nick: “I’m in a bit of a holding pattern with my yoga practice, um… It’s had some noticeable effects on me physically, but um, you know, I’m I’m certainly no closer than I was when this all started to buying into supernatural ideas or uh spirituality” (25:04).
Kate: “Are you really doing it though, every day?” (25:30).
Nick: “Ah no, I’ve definitely missed, you know, a few days over the last…” (25:32).
Kate (interjecting): “You’re kind of getting more and more lackadaisical about this” (25:35).
Nick: “Hmmph, I think that’s your conception of it, it’s not really mine. I guess, you know it takes a lot to change someone’s worldview, it’s not just, you know, done with a few, like, yoga classes” (25:41).
Kate: “I don’t understand, where are you getting worldview, just talk about, like, what about your peace of mind? Why does that have to be worldview? Why isn’t just Nick Rosen in peace in his life?” (25:53).
Kate tries to deny that it is Nick’s worldview that is at issue here. However, his worldview is indeed what it is all about, as is shown by her response when he states that he is not yet any closer to buying into spirituality. Her first reaction is not to say that he need not be spiritual. Instead she implies that the reason he is not yet closer to spirituality is because he is probably not practicing conscientiously enough. Spirituality, though, does involve a particular worldview, and so also does “peace of mind”. Emotional states about life and the world, such as being at peace, cannot so easily be separated from how we perceive the world. About five months into the yoga experiment, while in India, they have another such interaction:
Kate: “Do you really believe that yoga is anything more than a workout?” (Day 149, 44:33).
Nick: “I don’t know if it’s a path to realising the higher self, but I think that there are a lot of important ancillary benefits on the way to that destination that are not just, that are more than just a workout” (44:41).
Kate: “I gotta say you sound like you’re hedging big time. I don’t really believe what you’re saying. I don’t. I don’t believe that you really have that much faith in it right now. I don’t. I don’t believe that you take it that seriously” (45:05).
Nick: “Uh-hmm. Take what seriously? Take yoga seriously? Well, I mean…” (45:19).
Kate (interjecting): “Well, take the potential of yoga to really have any impact [inaudible]” (45:21).
Nick (interjecting): “Well, let me tell you, I don’t feel, I don’t think that, I mean, well it depends what you mean by impact, it depends what level of impact you’re talking about. I mean, we’ve been throwing around the word transformation a lot and I’ll, yeah, I’ll tell you I don’t feel any real transformation. I’m telling you honestly, I’d not gonna be so arrogant as to say that my experience defines yoga’s potential” (45:26).
Kate: “But do you think honestly that there’s still room there or have you written it off? Honestly” (46:00).
Nick: “Well, I guess I just don’t know…” (46:10).
During their time in Mysore, Nick reveals how he has recently been feeling an urgent and intense “need to value and nurture my relationship to my family”, particularly his mother, and how he fears losing them before having had the opportunity of resolving certain issues with them (55:21). As viewer my inclination was to ascribe his longing for his family to factors such as physical and emotional strain due to excessive practice, constant travelling, exposure to new environments with everyone trying to change his worldview, as well as finding himself in a foreign country far away from everything familiar and lacking the support of friends and family. I also speculated that he might be missing certain loving and sympathetic qualities of his mother, who although spiritually inclined, presumably does not possess as demanding and austere an approach as some of the yogic environments he had to negotiate. This seems to be borne out by his remarks in an interview a few years later, given in response to a question whether his becoming very emotional about his mom while in India had to do with yoga or rather with being far away from home:
“It certainly was sort of true that the pressures of the film – Kate being angry with me, being out in India far from home – I started to miss my mom a lot. It wasn’t just her though, it was a lot of things and it sort of precipitated and I felt pretty lonely and isolated at that point. I thought nobody likes me and I’m destroying this movie and what am I doing out here? It was helpful for me to think about the people who really do love you” (Nick Rosen quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
In her interaction with Nick at the time of the filming, Kate, however, appears not so much to acknowledge his emotional needs as attempt to steer him towards an acknowledgement of the way the Mysore atmosphere is supposedly conducive to reflection. Note how she again carefully eschews the use of any overly spiritual terminology (as is rather typical of their interviews, where both of them tend to beat about the bush a little):
Kate: “Do you think um, you know, being here in Mysore, and being in this you know kind of more open environment, I mean do you think that creates an opportunity for you to be more reflective?” (56:11).
But Nick responds by carefully backing away from talk of practice-related goals such as “reflection” and instead returns the focus to his mother and the related aspect of healing (of which he himself clearly feels in need at this point):
Nick: “Well yeah, I think there is things that um, there are things about the healing nature of this place that remind me of my mom” (56:28).
It is a rather clever equation of ‘being reflective’ with ‘being reminded’ of his mother. A few weeks later he would cut short his time in India to return home, justifying his choice to Kate by saying that he is missing his family and is “just compelled to go see them” (1:12:53).
In an interview with Kate after the release of the film, Lee Shoquist comments, “It would seem you have to be completely ‘open’ to it [great lessons from teachers] in order to have a spiritual conversion” and she responds:
“I think so. I have to give Nick a lot of credit. At the starting point, he had his own version of being open. And the reason he agreed to do this film was that he felt like maybe there would be something there that would lead him to a greater awareness or something more peaceful” (Kate Churchill quoted in Shoquist, 2009).
However, given that no great spiritual transformation transpired for Nick, Kate judges “the most important takeaway” from the project for Nick was “how the process totally changed his relationship with his mom” (Shoquist, 2009). In another interview she explains:
“Nick has said at other screenings that it’s inevitable when you step out of life and take a journey that it impacts you in many different ways, even in ways you can’t even recognize. I think the biggest was in starting to accept his mom….
He had a knee-jerk rejection of any spirituality. He associated it with his mom – she’s a healer. He moved more towards accepting his mom’s work instead of automatically dismissing it. He became more accepting of various practices that others are doing” (Kate Churchill quoted in Yoga Nation, 2009).
Nick’s own perspective on whether he experienced any form of transformation boils down to the following:
“Sure! Well what is transformation? I’m still the same person but did something change? Yes. I’m still totally humbled and unaware of how much. Some days I feel like I’m a kind of a relatively enlightened individual and other times I’m like oh my god I have no clue. It’s just like life. Yoga can be a great vehicle for transformation for people and I met a lot of people through that whole process like who were addicted to drugs or really depressed and yoga created this really intense energetic regular thing to devote themselves to that brought them a lot of stability. That sounds a little more like transformation than what I went through which is like calling my mom more often. but that is big for me, modest but it’s big and if that’s transformation then I’ll take it” (Nick Rosen quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
The implication seems to be that such changes are brought about not because of any inherent specialness to yoga, but rather due to devoting oneself to an “intense regular energetic thing” which brings “stability”, in this case yoga, but another activity (with or without an add-on spiritual philosophy) might serve equally well to lift depression and the like.
Kate calls the change in Nick a “tremendous shift” (Kate Churchill quoted in Shoquist, 2009), but calling his mom more often is obviously a shift of a few orders of magnitude less than her initial fantasies, which entailed levitation, deep peace and enlightenment:
“I really thought we’d find someone who would be like having us levitate or something. I mean, there was a real fairy tale to it. I really thought we’d end up in some magical place and we’d just instantly know [this person] is enlightened and just have this deep sense of peace” (Kate Churchill quoted in Espat, 2008).
In the journey with Nick, but more so afterwards during the editing process, Kate’s own worldview (or yoga view) also underwent change, if mostly entailing the toning down of magical expectations and gaining a more flexible mental attitude to practice:
“I really started this film loaded up with expectations, bound and determined that we would find the one teacher or practice that was going to turn it all on for us and fast-track us to enlightenment. As naïve as that sounds, I really thought it was a matter of finding the right teacher. Through the process of making this film and really stepping back and not trying to make the film that I wanted it to be, but really staying committed to making a film about what the experience honestly was, and listening to these teachers and looking at Nick’s journey and my actions and journey, and also how my expectations impacted him, all of this led me to the point of feeling that in terms of yoga and teachers, there is no one teacher.
[…]. My practice has become much more eclectic now, and I’m keen to practice will all different kinds of teachers depending on what city I am in. I shy away from any dogma, and I definitely stay away from classes where somebody tells me, ‘This is the way it has to be.’ So for me, I have become a much more open-minded adventurer, really” (Kate Churchill quoted in Shoquist 2009).
It is not surprising that after comparing the contradictory views of so many teachers, Kate came to the conclusion that none of them could select the correct practice for her and that it was up to her to experiment and make her own choices. Moreover, she let go of imposing her views on others:
“What I realized is that no one practice that would work for me. No one had the ability to tell me what to practice, and I couldn’t tell anyone else what to practice either.
I had to go with whatever practice or teacher worked for me—and I couldn’t tell anyone else what would work for them either” (Kate Churchill quoted in Yoga Nation, 2009).
Kate did not give up on enlightenment, though, but ended up settling on a rather vague notion of awareness that could be reached any which way.
“I think ultimately through making this film, to me, enlightenment translates into becoming aware. There’s so many different ways to do that and it’s up to you to sort out how you do that” (Kate Churchill quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
“Yoga is about being aware; it’s about releasing. And anyone can interpret that for themselves” (Kate Churchill quoted in Shoquist, 2009).
In terms of definitions of enlightenment this really leaves her no better off than at the start of her yoga project. As she points out:
“And it was funny because in a way…this is the thing about enlightenment, because nobody really defines what it is. As long as you’re looking for an ‘it’… I think in the west we get really attached to ‘what classes can we take’ and ‘what movies can we buy’ and ‘which cleanses can we do’ in order to become like ‘more at peace’ or this or that. […] I think you just have to drop your expectations and just be open to learning from someone and figure out what it is for you specifically what works… And really, I think this is a movie about trying to find happiness. Nick was trying to find his sense of happiness, I was trying to find mine, and we were both kind of using each other to do it which is why it wouldn’t work until we stopped doing that. So in a way I kind of played like the ‘bad guru’ to him, because I’m always saying ‘you have to do it this way’” (Kate Churchill quoted in Espat, 2008).
It is amusing, but not unexpected, that with the notion of enlightenment being this vague and constantly moulded to suit everyone, it quickly transmutes into a simple metaphor for the search for peace and happiness.
Kate had not initially intended to feature in her own documentary and the first cut of the film in fact excluded her interaction with Nick. Only after receiving feedback from mentors that the film lacked something, did she review her ideas about documentary film-making and “re-cut the film from scratch, creating a new story that was driven by the tension between Nick and me” (Enlighten Up! Digital Press Kit, p.7). This did result in a more honest documentary and Kate should get credit for the courage to make a film that does not always cast her in the most favourable light. She may not have reached enlightenment in the process, but she seems to have gained greater awareness about her own way of working and interacting with others. As she later admits, the editing process proved a more effective teacher than the yoga class (or sitting at a guru’s feet absorbing New Age truisms, I would add):
“For me, it was a practice of letting go of my expectations, and trying, to the best of my ability, to be truthful on all fronts. These are fundamental lessons in yoga that I learned not on the mat, or in the field but in a dark edit room and in the end, Nick was my greatest teacher” (Enlighten Up! Digital Press Kit, p.4).
Like many ardent yoga practitioners awed by a new spiritual ideology that conjures up yoga’s amazing possibilities, Kate had high hopes for her yoga project. In the end things did not work out the way she had hoped, but she retained her faith in yoga, albeit in a more modest form. At the close of Enlighten Up! she accepts the reality of a diversity of yoga definitions and chooses to focus on the experience of wholeness her practice brings her in the present, rather than a promise of future enlightenment:
Kate: “I still try to practice yoga every day. It keeps me whole. Nick was right, though. Yoga has no simple definition… and that’s the beauty of it” (1:17:36).
The idealistic search for a single true teacher and practice gave way to a more independent, consciously eclectic approach:
“When I started the film, I was mainly focused on Ashtanga yoga. Now it’s a much more mixed up version of a number of different practices. There’s a teacher I really like in Boston named Aaron Cantor. He studied Ashtanga for a long time, he studied Iyengar, he’s done a lot of work with Shandor Remete (Shadow Yoga) and he just blends it all together in a very individual practice.
I think what happened is when I was first starting out making the film, I was really bound and determined to find one practice and one teacher. And through the course of this journey and the conversations I had along the way it really opened me up to the possibility that yoga is what ever you choose it to be and the practice you develop is one that should suit you the best” (Kate Churchill quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
After the yoga project Nick remained positive about yoga in a secular sort of way, saying he does not think “there’s anything magical about the yoga, but it’s meditational and you bring intention to it” (YogaDork, 2009). He categorises it together with a range of other things that are generally good for one, rather than giving it a special or spiritual status:
“I practice yoga as much as I can, which is about once a month (laughs) It’s not as much as I can, I’m kinda kidding. I like yoga a lot. I guess I’m just not as disciplined about it as I should be or committed to it like a lot of people are who are really into it. There are all these things in my life that I know are really good for me that I should be doing more of, and yoga falls into that category along with things like eating better food, reading important literature, etc. It fluctuates. Sometimes I go once a week and sometimes I go months without doing it” (Nick Rosen quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
After the completion of the yoga project, Nick initially kept up his yoga practice, but eventually other forms of exercise took priority:
“I really like to run which I find really meditational, and I do my own sort of yoga stretches at home; after I run I do a set of sun salutations and some hip openers. I love climbing too and I do a lot of that out here in Boulder when I’m not working. Mostly I just work” (Nick Rosen quoted in YogaDork, 2009).
It is noteworthy that Nick describes running as “meditational”, just like he had done for yoga. He thereby implicitly denies a qualitative distinction between yoga and other forms of exercise, and undercuts the assumption that yoga is meditational par excellence as opposed to an exercise like running. Similar to Kate, Nick became more independent and innovative in his practice, choosing to do his “own sort of yoga stretches”.
In terms of the film’s reception, it was to be expected that its frequently irreverent tone would not endear it to all yoga enthusiasts. Kate comments as follows on viewers’ reactions to her documentary:
“Some people who are really set with their practice and believe that yoga is only one way, I think that they might not like this movie because this about really opening up yoga to people, the idea of practice and what does practice bring into your life and its very irreverent in certain places toward yoga. It doesn’t glorify yoga. There are a lot of documentaries that keep yoga very precious and this really doesn’t. There have people that have seen it that have been insulted by certain parts and feel like we’re insulting yoga by including it. But we were really honest. We went on a journey” (Kate Churchill quoted in Espat, 2008).
On a personal note, I enjoyed Enlighten Up! for its quick, tongue-in-cheek tour of the US and Indian yoga scene. Kate’s conceptualisation of a yoga experiment may have been feeble, but as a former devoted yogi myself, I could empathise with her exaggerated expectations of yoga as a life-transforming path to enlightenment, their constant guru hopping in search of the perfect teacher and practice, and taking the quest to India in the hopes of imbibing its spiritual atmosphere, finding the ever elusive true guru and getting fast-tracked to enlightenment – only to find that reality seldom lives up to the magic of spiritual ideals (regardless of how hard one strives), and instead having little choice but to adopt a more realistic and practical perspective on yoga and the world at large.
I also found the film useful in its juxtaposition of a variety of charismatic yoga teachers and yoga styles, partly because of my interest in the ideological twists and turns of contemporary transnational yoga, but also because it helped me look back on my own personal journey. I could compare which of those gurus I might have fallen for during my own intense yoga phase, but whose personalities and rhetoric now no longer strike me as extraordinary, but instead as rather transparent, clichéd and in some cases narcissistic. The film was a kind of tool with which I could measure the extent to which I have moved on.
I think over-enthusiasm for a particular yoga guru, teacher or practice can gradually be tempered (except perhaps in extreme cases) by becoming familiar with other gurus, teachers and practices, since it tends to relativise one’s own perspective to some extent. Observing other yoga practitioners equally enamoured of their respective gurus, teachers and practices, shows that one’s own is not incontestably the best. In my case at least, it was partly by exploring as many different gurus as possible in search of the true one (much like Kate and Nick had done), that I started observing questionable patterns in their behaviour, utterances and interaction with others, which eventually led me to see how I was buying into an untenable belief system. It is in this sense that I think films like Enlighten Up! – by showing different yoga gurus, teachers and practices side by side – may help cultivate (though often unintentionally) a more critical and discerning attitude among yoga practitioners, regardless of whether the film itself has much of a critical edge.
Smit, Estian. 2012. “Enlighten Up! Another Yoga Sceptic’s Thoughts on the Film”.
© 2012 Estian Smit and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
 For these reasons Enlighten Up! was the subject of a panel discussion (session A19-406) at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, 19-22 November 2011, San Francisco (AAR Annual Meeting Program Book, p.112). I am not au fait with the contents of that discussion, however.
 For a typology of modern yoga, see the one proposed by Elizabeth De Michelis (2004:187-189) in her A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism. In a later revised version (De Michelis, 2008:21-22) she identifies the main types of modern yoga as early Modern Psychosomatic Yoga (Vivekananda), neo-Hindu Yoga (e.g. Baratiya Yog Sansthan and Swami Ramdev), Modern Postural Yoga (e.g. B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois), Modern Meditational Yoga (e.g. Swami Paramahamsa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship) and Modern Denominational Yoga (e.g. ISKCON and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation Movement). However, she has pointed out that “Modern Yoga types will and do overlap when observed in the field” (De Michelis, 2004:189) and that her “typology could be improved” and “would benefit from further research” (De Michelis, 2008:22). For a critical comment on her typology, see Mark Singleton (2010:18-19), who points out that this kind of capitalised typology creates the false impression that “Modern Yoga” is “an enterprise with a unitary agenda”, existing “in various guises but fundamentally of a piece, conceptually and ideologically” (18). He opts instead for employing “modern yoga” (lowercase) in the sense of “yoga in the modern age (or, more often than not, transnational anglophone yogas of the period)” (19).
 For the decisive role played by international physical culture practices (e.g. European bodybuilding and gymnastics) and Hindu nationalist ideals in the modern reinvention of yoga, see for instance Mark Singleton’s (2010) Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.
 A Cape Town ISKCON advert in 2007 for the services of a new yoga teacher read, “ISKCON Cape has under the direction of senior devotees established a Yoga Lounge as one of its outreach programs where yoga classes are offered with dinner prasadam afterwards in a relaxed atmosphere. This approach is very well received by the young professionals and students in the City. The program is currently held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Due to an increased demand, more classes are in the pipeline. We therefore require the immediate services of an established devotee (male or female) or devotee couple trained to instruct yoga (Atma Yoga preferred) to support the growth of this program. The suitable devotee will reside at the Temple” (ISKCON Cape, 2007; advert on Vaishnava Message Board, http://www.prabhupada.org/bhakti/?p=46).
 For photos and downloads of some of these manuals, see the section, “Bodybuilding and Muscle Control in India”, in Fillary and Waldron’s (2000-2011) Online Museum of Physical Culture, http://www.sandowplus.co.uk/.
 For other studies of yoga’s history and development, see also Geoffrey Samuel’s (2008) The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century and Joseph Alter’s (2004) Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy, especially the first chapter on “Historicizing Yoga” (pp.3-31).
 It needs to be borne in mind that the various yogas to which the compilers of the Bhagavad Gita were reacting, were not the same as modern asana-based yoga, which as yet did not exist.
 An example of this can be found in Enlighten Up! where Shyamdas enthusiastically tells his audience – while leading a kirtan hosted by Sharon Gannon and David Life (Jivamukti Yoga) – of his first religious experiences in India: “When I first came back from India I was very very excited, I was 19, I had basically seen God a hundred times, or at least I thought I did, and I came back to America and I just couldn’t help it, tell everyone what I had seen and they thought I was really crazy” (Enlighten Up!, 17:35).
 For an interview with his mother, Jewell Rosen, see Carey (2009) http://aboutamherst.blogspot.com/2009/06/interview-with-enlighten-up-stars-mom.html. Rosen has a transformational healing website called Jewell The Source: http://jewellthesource.com/.
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